Students Organize First ‘Neuroscience Gala’ at UK in Honor of Former Adviserr

By Hillary Smith

LEXINGTON, KY. (April 28, 2022) — It started as an idea during the 2021 spring semester. The goal behind the idea being discussed by the student group, Minority Students in Neuroscience, was to bring together all neuroscience majors, faculty and staff for an event celebrating the study they all enjoy. The group’s faculty mentor at the time, Patrick Walker, the first Ruth Jones Lewis Faculty Scholar in Entrepreneurship & Free Enterprise, an endowed position in the Lewis Honors College, helped them develop a vision for a Neuroscience Gala.

“I remember thinking that is a great idea but having no idea how to put it together,” said Alexa Halliburton, MSN president.

Months later, the group’s mentor died unexpectedly.

“We really wanted to honor him by continuing this idea, this vision he saw, and now that we had more time, we really wanted to pull it together.”

Halliburton then reached out to two other student groups on campus: NeuroCATS and Women in Neuroscience.

“Science can be difficult, cold and unfeeling at times, and so events that give a little bit more humanity to a difficult career field are such a breath of fresh air,” said Savanna Burke, a junior neuroscience major and president of Women in Neuroscience.

The groups jumped at the opportunity to join to create an event for the entire neuroscience community. The theme of the banquet-style event was "Why Neuro?"

“As STEM students, a lot of us work really hard and don’t take much time for ourselves," said Lilly Swanz, a junior neuroscience major and president of NeuroCATS. "The gala allowed students to celebrate that hard work in a fun and supportive environment. We were also able to recognize members and faculty that have made a difference in our organizations."

The celebration of neuroscience included dinner, awards, guest speakers and a panel discussion. Students were able to ask questions to the panel comprised of medical doctors Zain Guduru and Nathan Abdelsayed neuroscientist Jessica Santollo and M.D./Ph.D. student Aaron Silverstein. The evening’s guest speaker was Warren Alilain,  associate professor of neuroscience in the UK College of Medicine and affiliated with the Spinal Cord and Brain Injury Research Center.

“Events like the Neuroscience Gala bring together various specialists and researchers from a wide array of fields within neuroscience," said panel member Zain Guduru, program director for adult neurology residency and assistant professor of neurology in the UK College of Medicine. "We get to share our journey and how our individual experiences can impact and contribute to science and the neuroscience community. This helps students understand what the neurosciences offer, research opportunities, shadowing opportunities, mentorship opportunities, and what impact they can create if they are in this field."

The gala, which took place during this year’s Neuro Week, concluded with some awards, including Mr. and Miss UK Neuroscience. The organizers felt the awards portion helped acknowledge how passionate and dedicated their peers are.

“It is important to make people feel included, and I think the gala — and our respective organizations — give neuroscience students that chance," Swanz ssaid. "Women in Neuroscience and Minority Students in Neuroscience are awesome for recognizing traditionally under-represented groups in the field. Then NeuroCATS brings everyone together based on our common interest in the brain."

Halliburton, who watched this idea in the start with her adviser, was thrilled to see it come to fruition a year later in his honor.

“This was the first of hopefully many. Hopefully, it will have the momentum to jumpstart into something beautiful.”

The soon-to-be graduate won’t be on campus to help plan future events as she will be continuing her neuroscience journey at Roosevelt University in Chicago, working toward her doctorate in clinical psychology on the neuropsychology track.

Meanwhile, those who joined Halliburton in organizing the inaugural event say plans are already in the works for next year.

“We are so proud of this year, we got a lot of positive feedback, so we are hoping to make it an annual occurrence,” Swanz said.

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In memory of Patrick Walker, a first-generation HBCU graduate, and his many contributions to the university and its students, the Lewis Honors College established the Patrick Douglas Walker Scholarship last year. This scholarship supports first-generation students, including students from underrepresented racial or ethnic groups in the college. 

The University of Kentucky is increasingly the first choice for students, faculty and staff to pursue their passions and their professional goals. In the last two years, Forbes has named UK among the best employers for diversity, and INSIGHT into Diversity recognized us as a Diversity Champion four years running. UK is ranked among the top 30 campuses in the nation for LGBTQ* inclusion and safety. UK has been judged a “Great College to Work for" three years in a row, and UK is among only 22 universities in the country on Forbes' list of "America's Best Employers."  We are ranked among the top 10 percent of public institutions for research expenditures — a tangible symbol of our breadth and depth as a university focused on discovery that changes lives and communities. And our patients know and appreciate the fact that UK HealthCare has been named the state’s top hospital for five straight years. Accolades and honors are great. But they are more important for what they represent: the idea that creating a community of belonging and commitment to excellence is how we honor our mission to be not simply the University of Kentucky, but the University for Kentucky.